December 7, 2013

Movie Review: Oldboy (2013)

Way back n 2003 a film was released in South Korea that left a mark worldwide. Not everyone liked the movie, but there were (and are) a good number who consider it a classic. The movie was called Oldboy and it was directed by Park Chan-Wook. It was the middle chapter of his vengeance trilogy, book-ended by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, a trio of films connected not by character, but by theme. All three were excellent films. So, as is the custom of modern Hollywood, a remake of Oldboy (the most famous of the three) was announced. This announcement, as is customary of fandom, was received with a resounding grumble of angrily clicking keyboards. It did not improve when Spike Lee was announced as the director.

As you all likely know, I am not one of those to automatically dismiss a remake. More often I am hopeful that its release will help draw attention to the original. In the case of Oldboy, that could be incredibly useful, as it is not like the original is all that well known (and it is currently streaming on Netflix). Well, I was really wanting to like this. Spike Lee has never been a go to director for me, but his involvement led me to believe this was not going to be a pure cash-grab for the studio. Love him or loathe him, Lee knows how to make an interesting movie and could not be termed a studio hack. Of course, the screenwriter was Mark Protosevich who, while not terrible, does not exactly have a track record of creative tales. He was involved with screenplays for movies like Thor, I Am Legend (this one isn't too bad...), and Poseidon (2006).

Beyond many people's desires, the film has been released to theaters and it looks as if it will be having an abridged theatrical run. I cannot tell exactly what happened, but it appears the studio got a case of cold feet. Whether they lost faith in the material, it's ability to find an audience, its director, its cast, or the very dark and bleak nature of the story, I do not know. What I can tell you is that in the weeks leading up to its release, it had very little in the way of a marketing campaign, no television commercials, no talent on the talk show circuit, it was radio silence. It's release was pushed from October to the pre-Thanksgiving Wednesday and it was scaled back from a full wide release to a more limited/middling theater count. When the Wednesday arrived and I saw it, things looked immediately down on the theatrical future. I could tell as I was the only one in attendance. Sure, anecdotal evidence to be sure, but then again I did see the movie. It was not good.

Spike Lee's Oldboy is not a good movie and it is kind of hard to see exactly where the blame lies. I think there is a good movie in there, or perhaps combined with footage on the editing room floor (I had seen one report that said Spike had to cut an hour from the runtime). It is a movie that, a it stands, has issues in pretty much all the aspects of its production. The writing feels weak, uninspired, and does not breed involvement. The acting felt hollow and I did not believe Josh Brolin's character. The direction seemed to be more involved in being cute/creative with the camera than drawing us into the tale.

The movie (based on a manga) tells the tale of a man who, well, isn't the nicest of fellows and drinks a bit too much. The man's name is Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) and one day, after getting caught out on his womanizing, drinks a bit too much and while standing in the rain outside a friend's (Michael Imperioli) bar, is kidnapped. He just vanishes from the street. He wakes up in what appears to be a small hotel room, but things are not quite right. The window is just a back lit image, the door is steel and has no knob, there is no phone, and food gets slid through a slot at the bottom of the door.

Joe falls apart. He has no idea where he is, what is going on, or why. Gas occasionally fills the room, knocking Joe out. When he awakens, his hair is cut, the room cleaned, and he has clean clothes on. We are shown the passage of time by way of the television. Joe learns from the television that his ex-wife was brutally beaten and killed and he is the prime suspect. As more time passes, he changes, he writes unsent letters, he trains by punching the wall and mimicking kung fu movies shown on television.

This imprisonment goes on for twenty years. Then he is released. Not knowing what to do, he goes back to his friend's bar. He let's him in and Joe tells of his imprisonment. Joe then gets a call from his former captor (Sharlto Copley). He is challenged to find out why he was imprisoned, why he was let go, and who he is, otherwise his daughter will be killed. Of course, this leaves Joe very angry and sets out to figure out all of the why's his bar owner friend and a new friend, in the form of a social worker nurse, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen).

I do not want to give away any of the secrets, as it would hurt your, ahem, potential enjoyment of this film and that of the original. I will say that this remake attempts to recreate the infamous hammer fight from the first film, and leaves the big reveal intact. However, even with those elements, this is just a stumbling speed bump of a movie.

Things happen way too fast and almost feel like a convenience. His meeting of Marie, his ability to find the things he needs to know, get to places he needs to be, it all comes to quickly. It did not feel as if he had to use any effort and it weakened his stance as a vengeful former captive. I also did not feel that Brolin captured the essence of this character, it seemed to be too over the top and I did not believe his change of heart. It may be in the casting, Brolin felt more movie star than everyman, which is what the role needed. The one take hammer fight seemed to be a bit out of place, it just sort of jumped into it ad was pretty jarring, it also looked to be digitally enhanced, like a video game. I was never drawn into the rollercoaster that Doucett was on, the anguish he must have been going through did not translate off the screen for me.

I will not go so far as to call it one of the wort films ever, thoughts like that are just silly. It does feel, however, incomplete. Things move too fast and assumptions are made that are not always clear. I did lie the camer work and the movie did have a nice slickness to it, and I am glad it did not try to change the reveal. Still, I cannot recommend this movie. This half baked concoction could use more work. Perhaps there will be an uncut/recut version released down the line. It has been suggested this would not have has had much dislike had the original not existed. I do not buy that, the lack of the easy comparison would not explain away the conveniences and assumptions that are made here. Again, I hope we get an extended cut, if Spike has the footage to improve this, let's see it!

Not Recommended.

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Dell said...

Josh Brolin has been reportedly saying that he likes the extended (almost 3 hour) director's cut much better. Hopefully, that version will see the light of day.

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